Grisly truth about London’s Roman skulls revealed 26 years after excavation

Scores of Roman era skulls excavated from a site near Aldwych in 1988 have long been considered the unfortunate victims of Queen Boudica’s AD60 revolution. The East Anglican leader of the Icenii tribe swept across the south east of England, with her army torching Roman settlements in her path.

But that interpretation of the remains is set to come under scrutiny as improved forensic analysis techniques have recently revealed an alternative (and even more gruesome) theory behind the find.

The skulls are now thought to be trophies which were collected by Roman head-hunters operating in Britain. They would apparently gather up the heads of their slain victims, bring them to London, and display them in exposed open pits.

The excavation site was also near a Roman amphitheatre, where some of the skulls are thought to have originated, their owners having been killed in public duels. Other skulls originated as far afield as Scotland.

The new tests have revealed that the unfortunate victims were almost all adult males, and most of them bear evidence of having had violent deaths inflicted upon them.

“It is not a pretty picture,” Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the museum of London, said to the Guardian. “At least one of the skulls shows evidence of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open.”

“They come from a peculiar area by the Walbrook stream, which was a site for burials and a centre of ritual activity, but also very much in use for more mundane pursuits. We have evidence of lots of shoe making, so you have to think of the cobbler working yards from these open pits, with the dog chewing away, really not nice.”

“We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre. Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator, it was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you’d give two of them swords and have them kill one another. Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process.”

Over the centuries, vast numbers of skulls have been found at the banks of where the Walbrook once ran. The most recent findings have been by workers on the Cross ail project.

Roman skull crossrail

20 Roman skulls were discovered by Crossrail workers in October 2013

The possibility that Boudica’s AD60 revolution played a part in the killings now looks unlikely. Redfern and her colleague Heather Bonney, from the Earth Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum, have dated the skulls to the 2nd century AD, which was a peaceful and prosperous era in Roman Britain.

This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life,” Redfern concluded.

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